Monday, April 30, 2012

Spargel, petit pois, & fiddlehead, all furled together!

It's FINALLY happening! The green markets are starting to get more than just roots and hearty greens! Ay dios, it's about time.  I think this time of year is all about delicate flavors and cooking methods.  Most of the produce that's coming up around now doesn't need much beyond a quick blanch or saute, which is fine by me.  Bright colors and crisp, fresh flavors abound!  Today, I picked up one of my favorite greens - pea shoots! I love them because of their intense pea flavor, but mainly because of the curlicued tendrils at the end.  They can spruce up any springtime dish!  Garden peas usually take the whole summer to grow, but these are harvested after just around 2-4 weeks when the leaves are still tender and young.  I was also able to pick up some fresh English Peas, right from the pod! Yes, I was having a moment with peas. Speaking of - check out this article about peas from the New York Times! Quite entertaining to say the least.  So what else, you ask? Garlic scapes - CHECK. Fiddlehead ferns - CHECK! White asparagus from Chef's Garden - DOUBLE CHECK! All I needed was a bunch of morels and it would have been the ultimate combination of springtime.  BUT, due to my aforementioned thought, I wanted all the delicate flavors of my ingredients to shine through.  Morels would have been a great addition, but maybe overpowering. Either way, let's get to cooking!

Early Spring Vegetable Medley with Tarragon and Lemon
Serves 4 as appetizer
1 lb. white asparagus
1 C fresh peas
1 C fiddlehead ferns, brown paper parts removed and ends trimmed
2 lemons, one used for zest garnish
Olive oil
Sea Salt
White Pepper
2 T garlic scapes, finely chopped on the bias
3 T tarragon, finely chopped
A handful of pea shoots!
Microgreens & edible flowers, for garnish

To start, prep the white asparagus.  Cut off the woody bottom of the stalk and discard.  With the spears laying flat, peel the outer skin of each off.  This isn't absolutely necessary, but the asparagus won't seem nearly as tender as it should otherwise. Cut into about 1- to 1.50 in pieces. In a large pot, add about 4 cups of water, the juice of one lemon, and about 1 t of salt, and bring to a boil.  While the water is heating up, prepare an ice bath for the vegetables.  When the water comes to a boil, blanch the asparagus first.  These will need to cook for a few minutes until fork tender, but it depends on the thickness of the asparagus.  Be sure to test!  Once they're ready, remove, drain, and shock in the ice bath.  Lay on a paper towel and reserve.  Next, do the same to the peas and fiddleheads (individually) - for both, you'll only need the water to come back to a boil, then remove and shock in the ice bath.

If you're really ambitious, you can shell the peas - again, not 100% necessary, but you'll get a better pea flavor, you'll have a bunch of split peas, and you get to entertain yourself by peas ricocheting off of yourself, the bowl, and whatever else is near you.  After peeling, I quickly fried up the skins for a crispy addition to the dish. To each his own! It's a pretty arduous process, so if you don't have the time or patience, forgo. 

Next, heat up a large saute pan over medium to medium low heat. Swirl in a couple tablespoons of olive oil, and allow it to heat it.  You don't want the oil to be too hot, as you're just heating the vegetables - you don't really want to brown them at all.  Toss in the garlic scapes, and cook for about a minute.  Next, sprinkle in 2 T tarragon, stirring often.  Finally, add in the peas, asparagus, and fiddleheads, a generous pinch of salt and a few grinds of white pepper, and cook until they've all warmed through.  Again, continue to stir often so you get the scape and tarragon flavored oil evenly distributed.  Remove from heat.

To serve, divide the pea shoots evenly amongst four serving dishes.  Divvy up the vegetable mixture atop the pea shoots, and if you've got them, sprinkle the fried skins on top.  Garnish with the remaining fresh tarragon, a bit of lemon zest on each, a grind of white pepper and some microgreens.  If you have it, finish with a bit of Maldon sea salt for an added crunch and flavor explosion.  Enjoy!

What a delightful combination of flavors! As aforementioned, each component within this dish is extremely delicate, with flavors that can be easily overpowered.  The simplicity and balance of items within this make it a perfect combination.  The cooked tarragon paired perfectly with the vegetables, bringing out their earthiness, while the zest brought out the brightness in the dish.  Because the pea shoots were the bottom of this dish, parts of them were warmed through, creating a nice balance between slightly warmed pea shoots, and fresh, crunchy shoots.  The flavors of the white asparagus, the peas, and the fiddleheads all came through, and everytime you got a bite of the garlic scape, there was a great explosion of flavor.  Overall, a fantastic springtime dish! If you can get your hands on any of these items, give this dish a whirl!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Dirt candy, fresh from the farm!

This past week, I was perusing The Chef's Garden website, marveling at all the amazing and beautiful produce they grow.  Their list of microgreens and various heirloom vegetables is exhaustive to say the least - and I love it!   The Chef's Garden is one of the primary suppliers to some of the greatest restaurants in the country because they have SO many varieties of everything, and because the product is practically perfect in every way.  Mary Poppins produce if you will.  To my delight, they not only offer a CSA package, but you can purchase individual boxes as well - either ten or twenty pounds! I figured I needed to have it.  I signed myself up for the delivery of a ten-ish pound box, and eagerly awaited the arrival to see what was inside.  Well, to my surprise, the delivery was LIGHTNING speed!  I came home from work late one evening to see a package waiting for me! I rushed in to open it, and the box nearly exploded with goodies inside! Tons of baby heads of lettuce - red romaine, redina, arugula - pounds of heirloom beets, carrots and potatoes, microgreens and edible flowers, white asparagus, beautiful young Gold Coin onions, and a mint sampler! Definitely a great investment, and I sure as heck will be purchasing more in the coming months! Seriously, I was giddy with excitement over this.  Unfortunately, I couldn't cook anything right away, but it at least gave me time to think about how I could best utilize all the ingredients! 

The next day, I had a light bulb moment and realized I had the perfect vegetables for a classic Suzanne Goin recipe! First off, this woman is brilliant.  Literally every recipe of hers I've tried blows my mind, and this is no exception.  I mean, this recipe is outstanding no matter what, but I knew using these beautiful veggies would take it to another level.  And it sure did! I made a few tweaks here and there and utilized all the springtime goodies that I possibly could and the results were something to write home about.  Or blog about rather.  Shall we?

Roasted Beets & Carrots with Cumin Vinaigrette and Chickpea Puree

Recipe adapted from Suzanne Goin, Sunday Suppers at Lucques
6 servings
10 medium beets, cleaned and trimmed
2/3 cup water
6 medium carrots
2 t fresh thyme leaves
5 T plus 1/2 cup olive oil
1 1/2 t cumin seeds
3 T red wine vinegar
1/2 C Italian parsley leaves
1/4 cup thinly sliced shallots - I used young Gold Coin onions instead
4 t fresh lemon juice
Lemon zest, for garnish
Sea salt
Fresh ground black pepper
Chickpea Puree (recipe follows)
Lemon Wheat Berries (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 400F.  Place the beets into a roasting pan, and toss with 2 T olive oil and 1 t salt.  Add the water to the pan and cover with aluminum foil.  If you're using a variety of beets, be sure to put the red beets in a different section, or even a different pan than golden or white beets - the color will run and stain! But, if you're not OCD like me, you can just toss em all together to get a nice tie-dyed look.  Roast the beets until tender, about 45 minutes.  When they're ready, allow the beets to cool and rub off the peels, reserving for later.

While the beets are roasting, prep the carrots.  Peel and cut them into large chunks.  Place the carrots on a rimmed baking sheet, and toss with 3 T olive oil, the thyme, and a bit of salt and pepper.  Roast the carrots until tender, about 20 minutes or so. Allow to cool.

Next, you can make the cumin vinaigrette! Toast the cumin seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat until just fragrant, about 2 minutes.  Transfer 3/4 t of the seeds to either a spice grinder or mortar and pestle and grind away.  Place the whole cumin seeds, ground cumin, vinegar and 1/2 C olive oil into a small bowl or jar and whisk or shake to emulsify.  I find it's easiest to use an old small jar and really get shaking!  Season the vinaigrette with salt and pepper.

When you're ready to plate, begin by dressing the vegetables.  If you're keeping the beets separate, you'll need to bowls - otherwise just toss it all together! In one bowl, toss the golden beets and carrots with parsley, shallots, 2 t lemon juice, and 2/3 of the cumin vinaigrette together.  Add the remaining vinaigrette and lemon juice to the red beets and toss.  Season both with salt and fresh ground black pepper.  

 For the final plating, place a nice spoonful of the chickpea puree in the center of the plate - this puree is outstanding, so don't skimp! Divide the beets and carrots evenly among each plate, sprinkling each with a bit more parsley if you have it on hand.  Finally, spoon a bit of the wheat berry mixture over top.  Finish with a little bit of lemon zest, and dig in! 

So ridiculous.  Every component of this dish is stunning on it's own, and put together it's really something else.  The chickpea puree has just a bit of warmth in it from the spices and is seriously addictive - it'll probably be a permanent fixture in my fridge moving forward for a quick snack! The carrots and the beets were beautiful - they both had such amazing earthy flavors that were just enhanced by the cumin vinaigrette.  The wheat berries added a nice textural element to the dish, and the lemon zest finish just brightened everything with a great touch of acidity.  Such a perfectly balanced dish!

Chickpea Puree
Makes 6 servings, or about a quart's worth
1 t cumin seeds
3/4 c olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, minced - I used spring garlic!
3 15-oz cans of chickpeas, drained, liquid reserved
1 t salt
1/2 t paprika
1/8 t cayenne pepper

Toast the cumin seeds in a dry skillet until fragrant - about 2 minutes.  Transfer to a mortar and pestle or spice grinder and grind to a fine powder.

Heat 1/4 cup oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.  Add the garlic and ground cumin, and cook for about one minute.  Add in the remaining ingredients - minus the chickpea liquid - and stir to combine.  Cook for about 5 minute, or until the chickpeas start to darken in color. Pour 2 cups of the chickpea liquid (if there isn't enough, just add water to reach 2 cups) to the pan and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the chickpeas are tender, about ten minutes.  Pour the chickpea mixture into a strainer over a bowl, reserving the cooking liquid.   Transfer the chickpeas and 3/4 cup of the cooking liquid to a food processor or blender and puree.  Slowly add in 1/2 cup olive oil and continue to puree until smooth.  Taste and season with salt and pepper.  

Lemon Wheat Berries
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 strips lemon zest
1 chile de arbol
1/2 cup quick cooking wheat berries
1 1/2 c chicken stock (water or vegetable if you want to keep it vegetarian!)
Sea salt
2 T olive oil
2 t fresh lemon juice

Combine everything besides the sea salt in a saucepan and bring to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer, and cook, covered, about 20 minutes until the wheat berries are tender.  Time will vary depending on the type of wheat berries you've purchased, so just check out the package!  When tender, strain the wheat berries, discarding the chile, zest, and garlic cloves. While still warm, toss the wheat berries with olive oil and lemon juice, seasoning with a bit of sea salt to taste.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

the crab lost his house!

The blue crabs are a-moltin'! That's right - it's soft-shell crab season.  I'm sure you've all seen them around town, on menus, or in the news...and hopefully on a plate in front of you!  Although some may claim to be 'over' the thought of soft-shell crabs, with the right preparation, they really are something. Think about the crab species itself - blue crab! It's not Maryland's state crustacean for nothing.  Generally speaking, soft-shelled crab is deep-fried, pan-fried, sauteed, you name it - all with some kind of breading or crust on the outside.  Although I do think this is delicious, I also think that it masks the sweet flavor of the crab itself.  Furthermore, I wanted to go a healthier route with my soft-shelled crabs! No breading, no frying, no gimmicks.  Just straight up soft-shells cooked with our good old friend Fire.  Unfortunately, as we all know, I don't have an actual grill, but I can always resort to a grill pan or the broiler - both work just as well!  I believe that with any ingredient that's super fresh and delicate, there's not much more you have to do than cook and season it properly to yield amazing results. And that's just what I did.  I paired it with a delicious vinaigrette made out of homemade young garlic confit, it's oil, and Fynbos vinegar.  And again, here I go with my good old standby - go with what's in season! You can hardly ever go wrong with the pairing.  

Spring garlic is garlic in it's adolescence, if you will.  The bulbs are yanked out of the ground before they can produce that obnoxious, tough, papery outer layer.  They look almost identical to spring onions! Being so young, they have a much milder garlic taste and are even a bit sweet.  If you can't find spring garlic, just use regular garlic - just know the flavor will be a bit stronger!  When preparing spring garlic, just peel off one outer leave, trim the roots, and you're good to go! They can be thinly sliced crosswise, separated into individual cloves, or simply chopped.  The entire plant is edible!  

Also, you may not be too familiar with Fynbos vinegar - it's a South African vinegar (Cape Town to be exact) that's infused with honeybush tea, rose geranium, buchu, wild olive, and wild rosemary.  These are all strong flavors individually, but the infusion is really quite mellow.  Unlike most infused vinegars - the infusion is used to cover up a bad vinegar - Fynbos starts with an amazing vinegar, and adds just a touch of the aforementioned flavors.  The result is a sweet, tart, and savory vinegar all in one! Again, if you don't have access to Fynbos, you can use any good, quality vinegar to make the vinaigrette.

Naked Soft-Shell Crabs with Spring Garlic Confit-Fynbos Vinaigrette
Serves 4 as appetizer

For Spring Garlic Confit
3 heads spring garlic, cloves separated 
3 sprigs thyme
1 chile de Arbol
Enough olive oil to cover

For Soft-Shells
4 soft shell crabs, cleaned and prepped
Olive Oil
Sea Salt
Fresh Ground White Pepper

For Vinaigrette
6 T garlic confit-infused olive oil
2 T Fynbos vinegar

To start, make the garlic confit.  This can be made a few days ahead of time as well - and if you like garlic, go ahead and make a larger amount of it! In a small, heavy bottom saucepan, combine all of the ingredients together, ensuring that the olive oil is just covering the garlic cloves.  Heat the oil over low, and bring to a simmer.  Allow to simmer 20 minutes (longer if you are using large, regular garlic instead of spring garlic), or until the cloves are super tender.  In addition to the cloves themselves, I chopped a bit of the stem up as well to confit.  Allow the mixture to cool and transfer to a jar.  Too easy!  Not only does this create amazingly tender garlic cloves, but it creates a deliciously flavored, infused oil as well.

At this point, you can either prepare your vinaigrette, or do so while the crabs are cooking.  Combine the ingredients in a small jar, and shake away to emulsify.  Due to the flavors of the garlic olive oil and the vinegar, no salt or pepper is necessary.  If you're using different oils and vinegars, you made need to season with salt and pepper.

On to the soft shells! If you have a grill, preheat over medium-high heat.  If you're using a grill pan, start heating it on the stove over medium-high heat as well.  With a broiler, make sure that the rack is about 5 inches below the flame.  Either you can clean and prep the soft-shells, or you can have your fishmonger do it for you.  Simply put, you have to remove the eyes, the gills, the sand sac, and the apron.  This is easily done with kitchen shears - snip off about a centimeter worth of the front of the crab...yes, it's face essentially.  From there, fold back the front-top shell, and there should be a tiny sand sac right in the middle.  Get that out, lest you end up with a gritty crab! Flip it over to expose the apron (like a flap on the crab's rear), and snip that off as well.  Finally, fold back the sides of the top shell to expose the gills, and pull those out. Now you're ready! Thoroughly rub each crab with olive oil, all over, and season generously with salt and white pepper on both sides.  When your grill, grill pan, or oven is ready, place the crabs top side down and allow to cook for about 4 minutes.  You'll start to see that the shell will turn from blue/grey to red as it cooks. Flip and cook for another 4-5 minutes, until the shells are fully red and no longer soft.  Remove from heat, and get ready to plate!

To plate, cut each crab in half, right down the center. Be swift with this as you don't want to squish the crab! Place each in the center of the plate, cut side down.  Place a few pieces of garlic confit around the plate, and spoon a bit of the garlic oil around as well.  Spoon a bit of the vinaigrette around the plate, and serve it on the side as well.  Garnish with some thinly sliced spring garlic greens, and dig in! Smash some of the garlic on a bite, dip a leg into the vinaigrette, or try it all on its lonesome.  When I tell you that soft-shells prepared like this are outrageous, I may not even be giving them enough credit! The true flavor of the crab comes out - and it really needed nothing more than the olive oil, salt, and pepper. And oh lawd, when you get a bite with the 'mustard', you're really in for a treat! It had the perfect amount of crunch, and an amazing sweetness that couldn't be replicated with anything else.  Both the garlic and the vinaigrette helped elevate the flavor of the crab as well.  The confit mellowed the garlic flavor out so it wasn't too overpowering, and as stated before, the Fynbos vinegar is quite subtle itself as well.  Altogether, they made for a heavenly combination.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Sole-ly delicious

Cherry blossoms, hyacinth, forsythia, OH MY! The city is starting to look beautiful with all of the flowers and trees abloom. It makes me want to frolic through the fields...but unfortunately for me and the general public's viewing pleasure, we ain't got much of that in Manhattan, so I'll just leave it to my imagination.  I have managed to transport a  nearly five foot tall cherry blossom arrangement into my center-for-ants apartment - so it's close enough!

All of the markets are beginning to bustle a little bit more, and thank god  have more than just root vegetables and hearty greens - not that I don't love them, but you can only take so much.  This time of year is always great, for more reasons than one: the weather can only get nicer and warmer, the days get longer (goodbye 5pm sunset), and most importantly, food selection simply explodes with goodness! That means we all get to cook with some fabulous ingredients, and if we're indulging, we can get outstanding tasting menus at some of the city's best restaurants.

My market trek this week left me with some ramps, fava beans, and red sorrel, among other things. I wish I could've found wood sorrel, but alas I did not.  Have you ever had wood sorrel? It has this unbelievably tart, citrus-esque flavor with a bit of crunch due to the thickness of the leaves.  We had some at my restaurant the other day, and I couldn't resist eating some...or a handful. Whoops! Anyhow, back to the trekking - I resisted buying ten billion other items, simply because I already had so much, and didn't want anything to go bad (my worst nightmare - the horror!).  With everything in tow, I set out to make a delicate, refreshing entree that evening - and relatively simple at that! The protein in this dish was lemon sole, although you could surely use any flaky whitefish, or even omit fish completely to make it vegetarian - you 'd just have to bulk up a bit on the other components!

Poached Lemon Sole with Wilted Sorrel, Fava-Ramp Sautee & Parsley Root Puree
Serves 2
1 lb lemon sole, or other flaky white fish
2 cups parsley root, peeled and chopped   
4 T unsweetened almond milk
1 cup fava beans, shelled, blanched, with outer germ removed
6-8 ramps, stem and root thinly sliced, with leaves roughly chopped
1 bunch red sorrel, stems removed
Olive oil
Sea salt
Fresh ground white pepper
Basil, finely minced
Basil flowers, for garnish 

 To start, take your fish out of the refrigerator and sprinkle with a generous amount of salt and white pepper.  Let sit at room temperature for about 15-20 minutes.  Preheat the oven to 350F.

While the oven is heating, prepare the parsley root puree.  Place the chopped root into either a bamboo or metal steamer.  In a heavy bottomed saucepan, bring about 2 in of water to a boil.  Steam the parsley root for about 10 minutes, or until fork tender.  Place the parsley root into a blender or food processor and pulse a few times.  Pour about 4 T of the steaming liquid into the blender, and process until smooth, scraping down the sides if necessary.  Add in the almond milk and process again.  You don't want the puree to be too runny or too thick - if it's too thick, add in more of the steaming liquid.  Season with salt and white pepper to taste.  Set aside, and keep warm for plating. And, if you're really ambitious, you can pass the puree through a sieve so it's nice and velvety - not necessary though!

At this point you can place the fish in the oven.  Place the fish into a high-lipped baking sheet or baking pan, adding just enough water to come up about halfway up the side of the fish.  Carefully place it in to the oven and let cook for about 10-15 minutes, depending on the thickness of your fish.  The fish will be done when it's easily flaked - you can always use the Ripert method and stick a metal skewer into the thickest portion for a few seconds, then touch it to your bottom lip.  If it's warm, it's finished!  I generally take a portion closer to the shoulder, yielding a thicker piece, so clearly this would take longer than a thinner place - just keep this in mind when cooking the rest of the items!

While the fish is cooking, heat up a large saute pan over low to medium-low heat.  Swirl in about 2 T of olive oil and allow to heat up for a bit. Toss in the sorrel with a sprinkling of sea salt and white pepper, and cook for just a few minutes, stirring often so it doesn't brown.  Once the sorrel is wilted, remove from the pan and reserve.  In the same pan, toss in the sliced ramps and gently sweat for about 5 minutes. Toss the chopped ramp leaves in the pan, and allow these leaves to cook until wilted, only a couple minutes.  Finally, toss in the fava beans, stir to combine and season with salt and pepper.  Voila!  At this point, your fish should be done, or close to that!

To plate, spoon a bit of the parsley root puree into the center of each plate.  Split both the fava bean saute and sorrel evenly between the two dishes, and top each with a portion of the lemon sole.  Garnish each with minced basil and basil flowers, a touch of olive oil, and enjoy! 

As you may have already figured, this is quite a delicate dish - albeit flavorful!   The various cooking method allow the flavors of each component to really shine through, as well as work together beautifully.  The parsley root puree is silky smooth with a lingering sweetness that's only enhanced by the almond milk.  If you've never had parsley root, send yourself out on a mission to find it! It almost has a haunting parsley flavor - it's really lovely.  The ramp leaves and root give again just a whisper of onion and garlic flavor that brings out the flavor of the fava beans in the saute.  The strongest component of the dish is probably the sorrel, which lends a nice lemony touch that always works so well with the rest of the ingredients.  Finally, the basil leaves and flowers bring it all together and add a nice touch of brightness to the dish.  Altogether, this is a stunning dish that simply begs to be eaten slowly - with that, all of the flavors can come through, one at a time, and you can taste just how well it all works together.  It's a definite keeper!